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  • Writer's pictureToby Elliott

Zen and the Art of Hill Climbing

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

This region of Bolivia is never flat, with short, stabby climbs ceding only to longer, winding passes. In fact, riders may well feel like they’re surrounded by a vast ocean of low lying mountains. Wherever you cast your gaze, there’s one ripple after another. ” - Cass Gilbert (Creator of Ruta Toro Toro

I had been much higher and I had climbed further, but the climbs of Ruta Toro Toro were relentless, little could have prepared me for them. The amount of elevation combined with the 30C heat made for a challenge. Yet it couldn’t have been more beautiful, incredible rock formations, tree covered hillsides, remote mountain communities and of course ripping downhills made all the climbing worth it. The ride required a change in mindset; I had to be patient, not rushing, taking my time, stopping to smell the proverbial roses. Once I accepted the amount of climbing and just took things in my stride the ride was far more enjoyable.

After three long restful weeks in the beautiful city of Sucre it was time to get back into the mountains, and this happened almost instantly, a traffic filled and chaotic climb took me past the city boundary. Before I knew it I was passing small mountain settlements on deserted gravel roads. One truck full of passengers in the back stopped and questioned me about where I was headed, they all laughed when they heard I planned to reach Cochabamba. Just a short afternoon and I stopped for the evening atop the first pass of the route. I had a commanding view of the sunset over the rows of mountains.

Mist filled the valley come morning and I awoke in cloud, my tent dripping with condensation. It made for atmospheric cycling dropping down through the fog. I rolled past a truck stop and began winding my way up the switchbacks of the routes first long climb.

Things were steep and the heat saw me dripping with sweat - a trend that would continue all the way to Cochabamba. I’d purchased a Bolivian football shirt in anticipation of the hot riding conditions, in addition to being great to sweat in it made me very popular with locals. Cries of “Vamos Bolivia!” Or “Viva Bolivia!” would often accompany me through small villages or from passing cars.

As the climb levelled out I entered the village of San Juan De Orcos. At the tiny tienda on the sandy plaza I met two young sisters, they enjoyed talking with me and I had fun practicing some Spanish with my child teachers. I shared some Fanta and helped them a little with their English homework before waving farewell. The road undulated and I sped along for the remainder of the day.

Resting in the cool shade at the top of one especially evil climb a giant rabbit came bounding down the road just a meter from where I sat, a fox chasing close behind, upon seeing me it froze in its tracks before slinking off into the undergrowth. I felt glad the rabbit lived to see another day, but then thought about how the fox would go hungry. It’s fascinating to see the rhythms of the natural world and circle of life in action, something I’ve witnessed regularly on this journey.

In the days failing light I pushed up the end of more one pass before finding a secluded corner of a field to pitch the tent. Awaking early to a spectacular sunrise I brewed up a mug of real coffee I’d been gifted by my friend Clara in Sucre. I was on the road by 8am flying downhill, a lone condor floated around in circles following me down the descent. In the ramshackle town of Poroma I visited a few tiendas, replenishing my supplies. More smiles and waves in all directions, the reception I had been receiving was quite overwhelming.

A dirt road followed the river up the valley, whenever I passed someone they seemed surprised but always friendly. A drunk man stumbled along road, he told me he was looking for his cow, I pointed out a cow in the bush directly behind him, he was shocked to see it there. How drunk must he have been? I didn't like the vibe that I was getting from him, and when he started asking for money or alcohol my suspicions were confirmed; on I rode. Drunk people are the most unpredictable and in my opinion one of the biggest risks when travelling - I generally do all I can to avoid them.

It was early in the day but the sun was absolutely scorching, there was no respite as I climbed higher. Occasionally a scraggly little tree would cast a shadow and I’d rest in it, gulping water and wiping sweat from my brow. Whilst taking one such break a minibus stopped right by me to do some maintenance, its passengers stared at me and a few took photos. The climbing didn’t cease and on I went. Struggling up a particularly steep section a 4x4 halted to talk, I was glad of the excuse for a break. It was a couple from Sucre on holiday in the area, they were encouraging and thought it was beautiful I travelled by bicycle, telling me it was a long way to Viru Viru - the settlement I was heading towards.

A broad ridge gained altitude. Down below the valley floor was an enormous riverbed, mostly dry, a vast grey ribbon slicing through the landscape. Finally I got some relief from the sun as the undergrowth formed a tunnel of sorts. Hiding in the shadows at the summit I chugged water before beginning the deadly downhill to Viru Viru. The road wound down the mountainside like a snake, perilous drops off to the side. I tried not to get distracted by the vista as a false move would prove lethal.

Water replenished in Viru Viru and yet more hospitable mountain dwellers. Zipping through a forrest of orange and brown, all the way to a riverbed. I encountered some intimidating bulls and cautiously gave them a wide berth. A modern bridge carried me safely over a roaring torrent of a river and I camped on the grassy bank the other side. It had been a demanding day and the sleep I so badly needed soon washed over me.

There was only one way to go - up. Slowly I forced the pedals around and worked my way up from the riverbed. The village of Caraci was home to a few tiendas and some kind locals who gifted me a few mandarins. I pushed the bike on the steeper sections, sweat stinging my eyes. Another bull blocked the road, I gingerly edged past the beast, when I tried to take a picture he huffed and clawed at the ground - safe to say I was back on the bike in a flash and speeding along with renewed vigour!

Two overexcited guys on a little motorbike introduced themselves, they worked for a NGO providing food relief to poor communities, we spoke for a while before they motored off, they told me they’d see me later on their way home. On I pedalled, giving myself to the climb, soon I found a great rhythm and was making progress. The sun was in the middle of its arc and shade was scarce. As I rested in the one small patch I could find and ate chocolate sure enough my two buddies on the bike came past hooting and shouting “Dali! Dali!”.

Turn after turn, straight after straight the road took me up, an occasional drop into a valley and I was ascending again. A few more hours plodding uphill and I finished the final climb before Toro Toro. Insane rock formations jutted from the earth, layers upon layers craning skyward. Whizzing along whooping with delight, before I knew it I’d reached the town. I ducked into a hostel, cheap and basic - all I needed.

That evening I wandered the uneven streets in darkness searching for a bite to eat. A familiar face passed me, we both did a double take, “Elena!”. It was Elena, a friend I’d met in Sucre a couple of weeks previously, what were the chances, she was with a friend Jolene, together the three of us shared dinner and a few drinks. It was nice to have good company after some days riding solo.

All the climbing had taken its toll, I decided to take a rest day. Watch a movie, wash some clothes, fix the bike and sip some beers. I hung out with a couple of other backpackers at the hostel and before I knew it the day was done. In the sizzling morning sun I bumped out of town. Looking back an incredibly symmetrical row of discs erupted from the ground, stretching up the valley, one of the most stunning geological formations I’ve seen.

A sweltering climb ensued, yet I hit a good stride, topping out at 4000M, the highest point of the route. There was a refreshing chill in the air and some frozen springs. A group of road workers stared in astonishment at me, but informed me there was a shop in the village of Piriquina. Following a brief downhill the road wound through remote farming communities hugging the mountainside.

Children ran after me waving, dogs barked in alarm and occasionally I paused to greet a farmer. The days final ascent brought me into the village. At the tienda I received a great reception from the family that owned it, I could barely tare myself away, but it was getting late and I had to camp. No more than ten minutes later I was pitching my tent in a pine forest just out of the village.

The following day was to prove the toughest in quite some time. After some pretty easy riding in the lingering shade, I descended to a riverbed, from here I climbed a relentless 1000M and then began another 1000M descent towards another river. Just as I was starting to really have fun the sight of the road (or rather lack of one) ahead burst my bubble. The mountainside had completely collapsed, a gigantic landslide taking out the road. Scree and boulders were all that remained. There was a trace of a foot trail traversing the mess. The most terrifying factor about the whole scene was that below all this unstable rubble was a 200M drop to the razor sharp rocks of the canyon floor.

I left my bike at the start of the landslide and ventured ahead on foot to asses the risk. Even going slowly and checking my footings it felt sketchy - and I’d have to do this in a minute carrying a loaded bicycle. Sitting for a while, sipping water and staring at what I had to traverse I seriously considered turning around. After some consideration I decided it was as an acceptable risk, I’d check every footing and if any section made me feel too uncomfortable I’d call it off.

Tentatively I stepped out onto the scree. Trying not to look down I assessed each foothold, ensuring there wasn’t too much movement. The bike suddenly felt very heavy, the rubble shifting far more than it had before. Edging along I made it to a relatively stable patch of scree to regain my composure. “I f*****g hate heights” I thought to myself before continuing. Adrenaline and focus got me safely to the other side.

A short stretch on the awful road took me to a bridge. Relaxing and having lunch I was somewhat surprised to see a man and his two young boys come walking along. I gave them all some cookies and joked with the boys about their choice of Barcelona football shirts. Feeling replenished I took on the climb up and out of the canyon.

The track was cracked and eroded, covered in debris and then I came to another landslide. This one was enormous, it was as though the whole mountain had given up and imploded on itself. Dust periodically rose from the mass and rocks would come bounding down the slide at regular intervals.

Where the road had been eviscerated in places there was generally a foot trail around the mess - however these were often unspeakably steep, loose and overgrown. It took me a couple of hours of battling, but ultimately I emerged atop the track to see a slightly more complete road. That evening I was shattered and fell asleep whilst it was still light outside.

I clattered down a cobbled downhill towards a village. Lurking the streets for water and food I was greeted noisily by a family in their front yard. The mother was making Trigo with a machine that huffed out clouds of black smoke. When I asked for water the father happily obliged and insisted I come in and have a bowl of soup, before he hurried off to the market. The hospitality was quite overwhelming, I gave the kids some biscuits in a meek attempt to repay the kindness. Sitting in the garden and watching the village steadily come to life whilst chatting with the family was one of those moments that travelling by bicycle is all about.

Reluctantly I started pedalling again. Ahead lay the last lengthy climb of the route - a fact I was overjoyed about. The view was intimidating, seemingly endless rows of switchbacks climbing up the cliff. Before I knew it I was grinding up them. It was a tough one, but passed in somewhat of a blur thanks to a few podcasts and the knowledge that this was the final pass. Late in the afternoon I reached the top. I was startled by a group of shepherds sitting by the roadside. They laughed, invited me over to share some of their corn and gave me a hearty mug of Chachi (a strong fermented corn spirit).

Blasting down the backside of the pass I was ecstatic - perhaps in part due to the Chachi! I put my headphones in and cranked up the volume. Shortly I pulled into a hostel in the town of Tara Tara, washing the grime off in a cold shower felt incredible. There was a festival of some kind and I wandered into the centre. I ate some delicious street food, drank a few beers, was gifted some kind of Chachi fruit punch and danced a little to the reggaeton before exhaustion hit and I retreated to the hostel.

At the plaza in the morning I accidentally ordered a revolting soup made up of some unidentifiable innards. Chugging a whole bottle of juice and pack of cookies still didn’t erase the taste! The final push towards Cochabamba was on tarmac; it felt odd to be travelling at such a high speed and not to be climbing for once.


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